Regular readers of Commonweal will be familiar with the work of Eve Tushnet. She has written for the magazine about art (for example, here, here, and here), about the shifting roles of family and friendship in twenty-first-century America (here and here), and about the experiences of a celibate gay Catholic (here). On this last subject she wrote a book that Mary Lee Freeman reviewed for us in January. Those who have read Tushnet's blog will also be aware of the impressive range of her interests, from pop culture (especially music) to high culture, from sociology to mysticism. She is a generalist with enough intelligence and intellectual energy to get below the surface of a subject, even if it's the tenth subject she's written about that week.
Now Tushnet has published her first novel, Amends, which is about a group of young alcoholics participating in a reality-TV series about rehab. Apart from their addiction, the six protagonists would seem to have little in common. They come from different backgrounds, have different personalities and tastes, and react to their new sobriety regime in very different ways. At its most sociological, the book is satire, offering the reader miniature tableaux of contemporary campus culture, jock culture, and telemarketing culture, as well as a much more ambitious portrait of our mass-media culture—a culture of self-display and therapeutic flimflam.
But Amends is not only satire. It's also an attempt to imagine how abject humiliation can sometimes (but only sometimes) lead to real humility. Tushnet does not sentimentalize the former or underestimate the real difficulty of the latter. But for many of her characters, pride is as big a problem as addiction, and a much deeper one. Alcohol is one of the things her characters are deceiving themselves about, but pride is the cause of their self-deception, and only undisguisable failure can undeceive them. In order to overcome their chemical dependence, Tushnet's young addicts have to accept their dependence on, and responsibility to, other people. Writing about the novel for First Things, Wesley Hill observes that "humiliation is better than sheer moral success if and inasmuch as it becomes the occasion for love (the positive virtue of self-giving always being better than the merely negative virtue of abstinence from something bad)."
Recovered sobriety, unlike clean living from the get-go, may be for some of us the necessary road to grace insofar as it shifts our perspective from ourselves (“I can stay clean”) to the lives of others (“I need you in order to get sober, and my saying ‘I’m an alcoholic’ means I’m in the same boat with you and I want to love you back”). Discovering a vocation, as Tushnet often says, isn’t primarily about white-knuckled self-denial and moral achievement; it’s about saying “yes” to a community to whom you have responsibilities, whom you’re called to love.
Amends is available here.